Agua Dulce (Mile 454) to Tehachapi (Mile 566)
Appalachian Trail hikers have invented some pejorative nicknames for the states that trail passes through. Vermont, for example, is known among hikers as Vermud. Pennsylvania is Rocksylvania. New Jersey is New Bearsy. In this spirit, I’d like to propose that California be known forever more as “Windyfornia”. Allow me to explain.
The winds in this past section have been intense. There are long stretches of the trail on the Mojave desert where it’s simply impossible to camp on a windy day, which is every day. That’s why this part of California is home to the biggest wind farm in the US.
Tidbit and I had no clue what was ahead of us when we left Agua Dulce last Tuesday. It was hot, and the trail was exposed, so we waited until late afternoon to leave Hiker Heaven. We hiked by the side of a road for a few miles on our way out of town, before the trail began to climb into a range of green hills.
Note: You can check out Tidbit’s YouTube channel here.
We reached the top of the ridge just before sunset, and made camp in a sheltered spot on the lee of a hill. We’d only made it nine miles, but that was all we needed to put us within a short day’s walk of Casa de Luna – another hiker hangout in the tiny town of Green Valley.
It was 15 mostly downhill miles to the highway to Green Valley, which we reached by mid-afternoon. We got a hitch in the tray of a pickup truck along with three other hikers. The driver dropped us off at a nearby gas station just as it started to rain. We bought beer, wine and snacks for the evening, and walked with our umbrellas up to the Casa.
Casa de Luna is run by the Andersons, a couple of trail angels who own a house that backs onto a huge Manzanita forest. The Andersons have carved out tent sites and a maze-like path among the trees. Painted rocks, decorated by hikers, are nestled in every groove. It’s magically bizarre.
The Casa is much less organised than Hiker Heaven (there is no laundry service or post office), but the atmosphere is a lot more social. This isn’t a place to fret over resupplying or organise trips to REI – it’s a place to hang out with your fellow hiker trash, look ridiculous in a (mandatory) Hawaiian shirt, paint some rocks and drink too much.
We ate dinner in the Andersons’ front yard with the 30-odd other hikers who were staying with us, then drank and hung out until hiker midnight (9PM). The rain returned in the middle of the night, and continued through the morning. Tidbit and I woke to a damp, muddy campsite, and we decided we were zeroing.
The Andersons and their volunteers were cooking pancakes for everyone in the front yard, beneath big canopies. We spent most of the day there, restless to get going. In the afternoon, I resupplied at the gas station and hung out while I used their wifi. The second night at the Casa was much like the first, except rainier.
We finally got back on trail the next morning, which was cool and breezy. After so many short days on trail in the past week I wanted to go big, so I aimed to make it 24 miles to the 500-mile marker. The trail hugged more green hills for most of the day, before ascending to a ridge that overlooked the Mojave desert. I could see the huge solar and wind farms on the desert floor as I hiked the last few miles to camp.
The first of the strong winds hit us that night, buffeting the bushes around my tent and keeping Tidbit and I awake. We only got short snatches of sleep thanks to the noise. The next morning we were groggy and bleary-eyed, but we continued on our way to our next destination: Hikertown.
Hikertown is a property owned by a trail angel on Highway 138, near the community of Neenach. It’s essentially a collection of tiny buildings that resembles a Hollywood movie set. There’s a city hall, a schoolhouse, a sheriff’s headquarters and a general store.
Further down the highway is the Wee Vill market, a gas station that purportedly had great burgers and allows hikers to camp out in their yard. We made it to the highway in the middle of the afternoon and hitched a ride to Wee Vill with an Indian guy in a rental car who was driving to Vegas.
The burger at Wee Vill lived up to expectations, but the yard was already crammed with tents. We decided to get a ride with the owner back to Hikertown. The guy who runs it told us it was also full, but offered us a room on the floor of his gas station up the road. I’d planned to keep hiking, but the wind was growing steadily stronger. I was decidedly not in the mood for any of this, but had no other options. We got a ride to the gas station and I crankily set up camp in an empty room with a handful of other hikers.
I got better sleep than I’d been expecting, but the forecast the next morning made it clear I wasn’t going anywhere. Heavy rain, strong winds and near-freezing temperatures were due in the afternoon – a recipe for hypothermia. I settled in with all the other hikers for an unplanned zero day.
We drank, played poker and ordered pizza from the gas station grill, which was surprisingly good. When 6PM rolled around, nearly every hiker in the joint huddled around the TV in the dining room to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones while it hailed outside. The delay sucked, but at least I didn’t have to spend another few days avoiding spoilers.
The weather eased up the next morning, so we got a ride back to Hikertown and resumed hiking. This section of the trail follows the LA aqueduct for 20 miles, and is usually scorching hot in hiking season – so much so that most hikers do it at night. When we did it, it was cold and windy with intermittent spots of sunshine.
We followed the aqueduct as it turned from an open channel to a huge steel pipe, then a covered channel beneath a concrete road. We pounded out 15 miles in seemingly no time at all before the trail veered off the aqueduct and through an enormous wind farm. True to form, the place was howling. One moment we were strolling along in a light breeze, the next we were getting blasted with 50-mile-an-hour gusts. It was difficult to walk straight, and we regularly had to stop and brace ourselves against the wind.
We found a semi-protected campsite underneath a tree at the edge of the hills and set up shop. I cooked some pasta, and scoffed it as the temperature plummeted. By sunset, I was huddled in my tent and hoping that the wind wouldn’t keep me awake. I got lucky.
The wind buffeted the tree, but my tent was relatively undisturbed. I enjoyed a solid eight hours of dreamless sleep – but the peace wouldn’t last. By sunrise, the wind was already picking up again. By the time I’d packed up camp, the wind was again gusting above 50mph. When we climbed out of the canyon we’d camped in, we were immediately hit by the full force of the gale.
It was relentless. All day, for 18 miles of trail, we were buffeted by violent gusts of wind that seemed to defy the laws of physics. There was no shelter. The wind was somehow just as strong on both sides of every ridge, even in valleys and canyons. It was deafeningly loud and unbelievably forceful, often pushing us off the trail and into bushes and rocks.
I never felt unsafe, but negotiating the insane gale was physically and mentally exhausting. When Tidbit and I finally reached Willow Springs Road by 4PM we were completely spent. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before a pickup truck pulled over to give us a ride into Tehachapi.
We staggered into town just as the rain returned, and ducked into a burger joint that Tidbit had visited last year. I demolished a double cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake. We had time to kill before our couchsurfing host Christine finished work, so we wandered down the street to a Mexican place with cheap drinks.
Christine picked us up around sunset and drove us back to her place, five miles out of town. She’s a teacher at one of the local elementary schools, and was an incredibly warm and welcoming host. She was excited to host hikers and eager to make sure we enjoyed our time in Tehachapi. We encountered this kind of friendliness all around town. People here are proud to be on the PCT, and welcome hikers with open arms.
I’d planned to get a haircut on my zero day, but the barber was closed. I headed to a nearby salon, where the hairdresser apologetically told me she was all booked up. Overhearing this, a customer who was getting her nails done interrupted. “I can cut your hair for you,” she said. “I’m a trail angel.”
The trail angel, named Jenifer, drove us out to her place and cut my hair on a stool in her kitchen while Tidbit and I chatted to her and her boyfriend, Larry. Afterwards, Jenifer and Larry insisted on taking us out to lunch at Primo Burger. Tidbit and I both ordered salads, which were enormous.
Larry gave us a ride the next morning to Willow Springs Road. We slack packed (hiked without packs) an eight-mile section of trail to Highway 58, where another trail angel, named Rick, picked us up and brought us back into town. We walked to Family Dollar and Albertson’s, where we resupplied and bought ingredients for dinner. I cooked chicken paprikash for Christine, Tidbit and Gourmet – another thru-hiker who was staying at Christine’s.
This morning, Larry and Jenifer gave us a ride back to the trail at Highway 58. We’ve been warned of snow on the hills north of Tehachapi, but at least the weather has warmed up. Next stop: Lake Isabella, then the Sierra.
Wrightwood (Mile 369) to Agua Dulce (Mile 454)
Boy, it’s been a hell of a week.
I ended up taking three whole zeros in Wrightwood, thanks in no small part to its brewery and handful of cheap restaurants. I finally left town on Wednesday morning with Tidbit, a 31-year-old woman and former national park ranger from Texas who lives in Southern California.
We lumbered out to the highway around 8:30AM, our packs heavy with a week’s worth of food. The first vehicle I thumbed – a pickup truck – pulled over, and we clambered into the tray. The driver, a friendly local named Joe, gave us a ride out to the trailhead at Inspiration Point while his two dogs rode with him in the cabin.
20 minutes later we were back on the trail, and headed to the summit of Mount Baden-Powell. It would be my first major peak of my hike, after skipping San Jacinto because of my heart problems near Idyllwild. We reached the base by mid-morning, and began the ascent up a seemingly never-ending series of long, steep switchbacks.
We came across a spring about halfway up, and stopped to collect water. We ate lunch as we caught our breath. The air grew thinner as we continued upward, and patches of snow began to intrude on the smooth dirt trail. Within a mile, the trail was nothing but a set of footprints through deep snow.
About 1.5 miles from the summit, the footprints stopped winding back and forth across the mountain and turned straight up. We trudged slowly up the steep mountain face, choosing each step carefully. One slip and the slick snow would carry you a long way down.
A hiker who’d gone two days before us, Moneymaker, had fallen on the way up, and slid 20 feet before hitting a tree. He injured one of his arms in the process, and ended up being helicoptered off the mountain. Luckily, his injuries weren’t serious and he’s back on trail.
We made it to the summit by mid-afternoon, and enjoyed a spectacular view of other mountains and clouds far below us. On a clear day you can just spot the downtown LA skyline from the top, but it was completely obscured by clouds. We caught up with Rampage and Lionheart, who I hadn’t seen since Big Bear. Also at the top was True Grit, who I last saw at Deep Creek.
After a break near the top, Tidbit and I continued along the ridge, slowly negotiating the deep, angled snow. By 6:30 we’d only made it 11 miles for the day, but we were beginning to run out of light. We decided not to push on to Little Jimmy campground, and made camp at a flat spot by the trail instead. Short on water, I melted some snow to make pasta for dinner.
We left not long after sunrise the next morning, intending to make it 20 trail miles to Camp Glenwood – a kids summer camp that allows hikers to stay on their property. The actual walk was around 22 miles, thanks to a diversion that requires hikers to walk along a highway to avoid a section populated by the endangered Mountain Yellow Frog.
First we climbed Mount Williamson, a 1200-foot ascent that was happily free of snow. Tidbit and I had lunch at the summit with a group of other hikers including Marguerite, who I met in my first week but hadn’t seen since. She’d injured her ankle and taken time off the trail in Palm Springs to let it heal.
We made it to the highway in the early afternoon. At first, the asphalt was a welcome break from the rocky, uneven trail, but that lasted about five minutes. The hard pavement was much harder on my knees, and my left knee complained all three miles. We left the road at Buckhorn Campground, where a spur trail links back up to the PCT. Entering Buckhorn was like walking into northern California. The arid, rocky desert was replaced with a valley of huge cedar trees surrounding a gushing river.
We passed the 400 mile marker after a long climb, then staggered into Camp Glenwood just before dark. I made some kind of rice dish – not my best – and collapsed onto my air mattress.
The next morning, we woke up under a blanket of fog. Condensation was dripping from the ceiling of my tent, and a pool of ice-cold water had formed around my feet, soaking my shorts. Wonderful. I decided to hike in my thermal bottoms instead. As we packed up camp, we were pelted with a scattering of hail, followed by a light drizzle.
Enterprise, a guy from Scotland who hiked the trail before, had told us about a restaurant on Highway 2, only a few miles ahead. We decked ourselves out in our rain gear and trudged to the highway. It was the first time I got to use my umbrella in the rain and I was glad to have it, as I’ve yet to come across rainwear that doesn’t eventually soak through.
We made it to the empty highway by 9AM and began the 1.8 mile road walk to Newcomb’s Ranch Restaurant. When we got there, we stripped off our wet gear on the porch and left it to air out. Inside it was wonderfully warm, and full of members of a Porsche club. The waitress told us they drive up from Los Angeles every Friday.
Hot coffee warmed me up, then I demolished a huge breakfast burrito. We hung around after we’d finished eating, not keen to go back out into the cold. I dried my shorts under a hand dryer in the bathroom. When the restaurant closed at noon, our waitress dropped by our table with the check and a tray full of cooked bacon. “We were just gonna throw this out but I know you guys are hungry,” she said. We tucked in.
The friendly waitress also offered us a ride back to the trail, which we gratefully accepted. With full stomachs we hiked on through the mist, which hung around all day. We ended the day at the Mill Creek fire station, 18 miles from where we began.
I pitched my tent next to a toilet block just as a storm was rolling in, and sheltered in the block’s vestibule while I made dinner. Tidbit turned up about half an hour later and we ate together. All the other hikers had already retreated to their tents. Light rain was sprinkling the tent when I went to sleep.
Roaring winds woke me up in the middle of the night, amplified by the sound of pouring rain and the loud flapping of my tent’s fabric. A stake had come loose in the gale. Grumbling, I hunted around for my rain gear and put it on. I dashed out of the tent into the downpour, and fumbled with freezing fingers to put the stake back in its place. I found a large rock and put it on top, just in case. I returned to the tent dripping, and tried my best to keep the soaked gear away from my sleeping bag. Eventually I drifted back to sleep.
When I woke, a murky puddle had formed at the foot of my tent once again. The wind was still howling and the sky was ominously dark, but at least the rain had stopped. I took shelter with other hikers in the toilet vestibule while I ate breakfast and crammed my soaking wet stuff into my backpack.
I left camp in my rain gear, but within minutes the sun had emerged and it began to get hot. I stopped and took it all off less than a mile from camp. It alternated between stifling humid heat and cold winds all day. Mountains do weird things to the weather.
All day I hiked along a ridge, often looking down over the large town of Palmdale. I stopped at creek with other hikers to refill water in the mid-afternoon. As we were talking, we heard a rumble from the sky, and spotted a huge storm system moving towards us. It began to spit. I took off, trying to beat the storm to the North Fork Ranger station, where I planned to camp. I jogged for a short section as the storm moved in before we all got a lucky break. The storm turned, and never hit us.
I limped into the ranger station on aching feet. The ranger was selling sodas and chips to raise money for charity, so I happily bought a drink and three packets of chips. I scoffed the lot at a picnic table and heated up some pre-made jambalaya for dinner. The storm threatened us again as the sun began to dip, but again it turned away.
My feet were still aching the next morning, as were Tidbit’s. I’d planned to hike 18 miles to Agua Dulce that day, but my feet clearly weren’t going to co-operate. Instead, we aimed for the KOA campground at Acton, 8.5 miles away. The hike only took a few hours, but it was hot as hell with almost no shade. Tidbit and I arrived at the KOA soaked in sweat.
I bought a frozen cheeseburger and an ice cream from the office, then showered and washed my clothes. While hanging out in the rec room watching Gilligan’s Island, we overheard one of the KOA staff telling other campers that a film crew from LA would be shooting a horror movie at the campground that evening.
I spent the afternoon soaking my sore feet in the hot tub and hanging out by the pool. Tidbit and I bought frozen pizzas from the office and cooked them in an oven in the rec room. As the sun went down, the film crew rolled up and set up shop on the far end of the campground. We wandered over to take a peek and got told off by a KOA employee for taking pictures of the set.
When we got back to our camp, the screaming started. The actress was evidently in some kind of mortal peril – possibly involving giant rats – and must have been killed 100 times throughout the shoot. Crew members walked back and forth past the hiker campground all night, talking loudly. I managed to sleep through most of it, but Tidbit said she was awake all night. KOA staff wouldn’t tell us what the movie was, but I’m going to find it when it comes out and give it zero stars on IMDB.
The next day was forecast to be another scorcher, so Tidbit and I left early to get the day’s climb out of the way before it got too hot. We made it to Vasquez Rocks just outside Agua Dulce by mid morning. The rock formation, formed by the San Andreas fault, has been used in countless Hollywood movies and TV shows, including the original Star Trek.
We rolled into Agua Dulce about an hour later, and walked a mile down a road to Hiker Heaven. Hiker Heaven is a big property owned by the Saufley family, who have set it up with just about everything a hiker could want. They offer showers, a laundry service, mail delivery and charging outlets, to name a few things. I even managed to catch up on Game of Thrones on the Saufleys’ TV with a bunch of other hikers. Heaven!
Big Bear (Mile 266) to Wrightwood (Mile 369)
Trail magic can come from the most unexpected places.
Before I got discharged from Eisenhower Medical Centre after my A-fib episode, I got a visit from the nursing unit director, Sue. She told me she’d hiked various sections of the PCT, and had a cabin in Big Bear where she spent most of her weekends. She wasn’t in town when I made it to Big Bear, but she kindly let me stay in the cabin for two nights. I shared it with Camilla.
We used it as a base for trips into town, where we bought supplies and stuffed our faces with Indian food at the Himalaya restaurant. One of Sue’s local friends, Will, even picked us up and took us to breakfast at his favourite cafe. The twin towns of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City cover a large area, making it tricky to get around without a car. Ubers were scarce when we needed to get around, but the bus system was surprisingly good, if not that regular.
After a day of rest, we managed to find an available Lyft driver who took us back to the trailhead on Monday morning. The weather had taken a cold turn, and the forecast warned of a thunderstorm that afternoon. As we climbed to the ridge that borders the north side of the lake, we could see a storm cloud dumping rain just a few miles away.
To my relief it never passed over the trail. Instead, a thick fog settled in over the ridge, shrouding the trees and creating an eerie atmosphere that reminded me of a Stephen King novel. The fog had grown thick by the time I reached a stream nine miles in, where many hikers were collecting water.
After treating a couple of litres with my Steripen, I hiked on four more miles and dry camped on a rise with Camilla, a French hiker named Alexia, and Hotbox and Trigger – a couple from Chicago. The temperature was plummeting, so I made a quick meal of pasta with cheese and retreated to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
The mercury went below zero overnight, and I woke up to find a thin film of ice covering my tent. I tried to scrape it off with my hands, which made my fingers go numb. My new rain mittens were a little help, but not much. Eventually I gave up and just rolled the tent up, ice and all.
It warmed up quickly as I continued along the ridge, heading west. The trail had turned after Big Bear, and would wind its way west for about 170 miles through the San Bernardino and Angeles national forests. The alpine vegetation around Big Bear gave way to desert scrub as the trail descended.
I ended the day 19 miles later at Deep Creek, near the site of an old 1920s cabin that had been converted to a picnic area. Rangers don’t allow hikers to camp at the cabin site, so I joined a crowd of hikers camping under a trail bridge nearby. It was a beautiful spot, at the bottom of a densely-vegetated canyon.
The next morning I followed the trail along the rim of the Deep Creek canyon, passing the 300 mile marker. A couple of hours later, I descended to the creek’s famous hot springs. I joined a bunch of other hikers soaking in the hot pools, and felt the knots in my legs and back loosening in the hot water.
I was on a schedule, so I didn’t stay for the afternoon. Trail angels the Homeboys, who had visited me in hospital a few weeks earlier, had offered to pick me up from a nearby highway crossing and take me to a Japanese restaurant. Salivating at the prospect of teriyaki chicken, I booked it to the highway.
Jamie was waiting for me at the trailhead, along with Strider. Strider’s knee had been bothering him, so he was hitching a ride off-trail to let it recover. We made it to the restaurant by 4, only to find we’d picked the one day of the week it wasn’t open. Bummer!
Instead, Jamie drove us to the McDonalds at Cajon Pass where we met her husband Andrew, and I tucked into a double quarter pounder. I picked up 20 McNuggets for the hikers back on trail, fearing I’d be lynched if I returned empty-handed.
We dropped off Strider at the Best Western, and the Homeboys dropped me back at the trailhead. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I wanted to get some more miles done before dark and distribute the McNuggets while they were still warm.
The trail hugged a range of hills above open plains, and was eerily empty and silent. In two hours I made it about six more miles, and only saw two other hikers. I gave the first, a guy from Dallas named Brian, 10 nuggets, and shared the rest with a guy named Joyride at the spot where I camped, next to a stream.
Joyride told me he earned his name on the Appalachian Trail, where he unknowingly got a hitch from a wanted felon driving a stolen vehicle. He was arrested at his hostel and charged with joyriding, and spent three days in a jail before the charges were dropped. Now that is a good trail name story.
The next day, I’d originally planned to walk 18 or so miles and camp short of Cajon Pass and the I-15 freeway. I woke up agitated, and just didn’t feel like another night in my tent. I called the Best Western and made a reservation. I’d have to cover nearly 25 miles to make it, but I didn’t care.
I hiked like I was possessed, charging up hills and racing along the flats. I barely paused to take photos when I reached Silverwood Lake, and only took off my pack twice all day – both times to collect water. I skipped lunch and munched on some granola bars instead, while I kept walking.
Finally around 4PM I staggered into the Cajon Pass McDonalds, where I’d been a day earlier, and ordered another quarter pounder meal. I was drenched in sweat. I chanced walking across the I-15 interchange, the only way to get to the Best Western on the other side. This place was not designed for pedestrians.
I checked into my room, which had an enormous king bed. I watched the filth pool around my feet in the shower as I scrubbed myself clean. It felt glorious. I washed my clothes, and got some drinks from the neighbouring gas station with some other hikers.
There were only 28 miles of trail between me and Wrightwood, but it involved over 5000 feet of elevation gain and no reliable water sources. I dawdled in the hotel the next morning until the 11AM checkout, then hit the trail with Canary, a hiker from Oklahoma.
We passed the spectacular Moses Rocks, which look like a set from an old western. Huge freight trains lumbered between them as we hiked by. Canary had been having troubles with her foot, so she soon fell behind. I continued upward, taking switchback after switchback for hours. I made 15 miles, and cowboy camped at a rare flat spot around 6500 feet.
Early the next morning, hiker All-In caught up to me at my camp spot. He’d camped with Canary the night before, and told me she’d eaten some bad dehydrated food and gotten sick. Being sick on trail is so much worse than being sick in town. I texted to check on her, and she said she was going to try and push on to Wrightwood after a late start.
All In and I hiked the last five miles of the climb before reaching the day’s peak elevation. I stopped to rest, and hiked the last eight miles to the highway alone. Traffic was slow, but I got a hitch after about 15 minutes and got dropped off at the hardwear store in town, which is hiker central. The store is all set up for hikers, with a trail register, information on local trail angels and a weighing station for packs.
I got a Philly cheese steak sandwich at the brewery, and a milkshake at the sweets shop. I’d invited a friend of mine from LA, Kathy, to come visit while I was near, so we’d booked an AirBnB on the outskirts of town. The owner, Jeff, turned out to also be a trail angel who was hosting three other hikers in his garage.
Kathy arrived in the early evening, and we went out for steaks at the Grizzly Cafe and beers at the Raccoon Saloon. I took a zero the next day, which was Cinco de Mayo. Canary made it into town, feeling much better, and we watched a softball game out at the entry school with Faucet (from Seattle) and Tidbit (from Texas).
Later, a dad who spied us loitering outside the community centre conned us into watching his kid’s school production. We sat through the first act of Annie, then bailed. We all ended up at the Wrightwood Inn, which was offering free pool and $3 beers. We got hammered.
Now I’m taking a second zero, because there’s a storm up on Mount Baden Powell. Definitely nothing to do with drinking. Nope.
Hikers call towns “vortexes” because they suck you in and don’t let you go. I’m loving this one, but looking forward to getting back on trail tomorrow and conquering Baden Powell.
Idyllwild (Mile 179) to Big Bear (Mile 266)
I got discharged from Eisenhower right in the middle of the Coachella music festival, which had filled up every last hotel room in the Palm Springs area. I hadn’t a hope of finding accommodation until my hospital roommate, Bob, kindly offered to let me stay with him and his wife Karen at their retirement community in Indio, not far away.
Bob and Karen are from Wisconsin, but spend their winters down in the southern California desert to escape the snow. They were keenly interested in my hike, and we grew pretty close in my time with them. They were incredibly generous with their time and effort to help me get back on trail, even though I had so little to offer to repay them.
We bonded over our shared love of Wisconsin sports (especially the Packers, but also the Brewers and Bucks). Bob let me drive us in his golf cart to his gym, where I gingerly tested my heart’s strength on the treadmill. I had long chats with Karen about everything from my life in Australia to the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Bob and Karen invited their friends around for dinner to meet me, and took me to PF Chang’s for a very non-traditional Easter dinner. That sort of kindness from people I’d only just met is what the trail is all about. It’s truly uplifting.
On paper I was fully recovered from my A-fib episode, but I was still nervous when it came time to head back up into the mountains. I was picked up by a Palm Desert local named Jesse, who’d seen my blog post on Facebook and offered me a ride to Idyllwild – another act of kindness from a complete stranger. Jesse accompanied me on my slow plod up the Devil’s Slide trail, where I stopped every few minutes to check my pulse. Mercifully, it stayed in rhythm.
We said our goodbyes at Saddle Junction, and I began the climb around San Jacinto Peak. I’d originally planned to take the summit trail to the top, but I thought climbing a mountain on my first day back from a heart procedure was exactly the kind of fatally stupid decision that earns people Darwin Awards. I stuck to the PCT, and hugged the ridge around the mountain.
I hit snow at around 8700 feet, and strapped on my microspikes. A light dusting of falling snow soon turned into a magical flurry, followed by sleet and light hail. I’d planned to walk 10 miles to Fuller Ridge campground, but the going through the steep snowy sections was even slower than expected. I made it about 8 miles before I ran out of light, and made camp with a group of other hikers near a bluff. We watched in awe as a spectacular sunset lit up the valley far below in glowing pink light.
My trail name had been Woggle, but my hiking buddy Kate suggested I change it to Paddles after my brush with a defibrillator. I liked it, so I introduced myself as Paddles to this new group of hikers.
The next morning I was out of camp early, intending to make it 18.5 miles to the base of the mountain. The two miles along the notorious Fuller Ridge was frustratingly slow going, but not as dicey as I’d expected. I cleared the last of the snow at the campground, and began the long descent. A seemingly endless series of switchbacks wound down, down, down, dropping 8500 feet in 16 miles. It was easy on the calves, but rough on my joints. My knees were tender when I finally reached the spigot that marks the end of the descent.
As the only water source for miles, the area around the pipe was crowded with hikers. Not having room to set up my tent, I rolled out my sleeping mat and cowboy camped under the stars. I had a long, dreamless sleep.
I was wide awake at 4AM, and decided to make an early start. Expecting a hot day on the desert floor, I wanted to beat the heat. I strolled along the trail in the dark towards the Interstate 10 underpass, passing beneath crackling transmission lines on the way. The pre-dawn light silhouetted wind turbines on the horizon.
Dawn broke as I reached the underpass, where I discovered a cooler of trail magic. There were soft drinks, beers, and a hiker box. I helped myself to a Mountain Dew and munched on a stale danish I’d bought before my hospitalisation while freight trains and traffic rumbled overhead.
I-10 is the trail access point to the town of Cabazon, but I’d decided to skip it and aim for Big Bear. I had plenty of supplies, and there wasn’t much in Cabazon but fast food and an Indian casino. I’d heard hitching there on the interstate service road was difficult, but apparently you can now Uber into town.
I left the underpass, and began gradually climbing away from the desert floor. Over the next two days, I would have to regain virtually all the elevation I’d lost the day before. By mid-morning I made it to the office of the Mesa Valley Wind Farm, which the Guthook app had told me was a regular source of trail magic. I poked my head in the door, and was greeted by the manager who offered me a seat in the employee’s break room. There was a cream cake on the table for hikers to tuck into, and the fridge was stocked with food available for purchase at basically cost price. I helped myself to some cake, an ice cream and some Gatorade powder, and charged my phone.
I headed out an hour later, and followed the trail as it climbed steeply away from the Mesa Valley. I hiked for a while with Mayhem, a 19-year-old girl from Oregon, until we reached the Whitewater River in the early afternoon. Many hikers were camped out in the shade beneath tall cliffs. It was getting hot, and I’d already walked 15 miles, so I decided to join them. I dunked myself in the fast-flowing river and washed off some of the sweat and grime I’d accumulated over the past few days. It felt sublime.
After several hours of lounging around, I forded the river and bashed out another six miles to Mission Creek just before sunset. I’d walked 20.7 miles – my longest day on the trail so far. I felt tired, but satisfied with how my body was performing. I had dinner with Camilla, a hiker from Phoenix, then crashed, knowing the next day I’d have to tackle my biggest elevation gain so far.
I’d planned to make it 15 miles, but the terrain proved even tougher than expected. The first six miles was almost completely washed out by flooding, and the trail was nonexistent. Camilla and I spent hours bush-bashing, picking over rocks and splashing through the creek on our way to its source. The sun was blazing. The only upside was that my shoes dried quickly after each dunking.
We reached a shady spot around mile nine, and lazed with a few other hikers as we waited out the early afternoon heat. I grew impatient and headed out before the rest, continuing the seemingly never-ending climb along steeper and steeper inclines. By the last mile, I was running out of gas. I stopped every few hundred feet for a breather, willing the campground to appear. Finally, it did. I’d only made it 13.8 miles, but it was my toughest of the trail so far. I crawled into my tent and slept like a baby.
The next day had its ups and downs, but it was nothing compared to the grueling ascent of the day before. I made it 19 miles before sunset, to a ridge with a view of Big Bear. Camilla and I woke early the next morning and walked the 6.7 miles to Highway 18, passing the trail’s 10% milestone along the way. We got a ride into town with a hotel proprietor who’d come to drop off some guests.
I’ve spent today’s zero day enjoying all the comforts of civilisation (namely plumbing and heating), and stuffing my face with real food. Tomorrow, I’ll be back on the trail heading to Cajon Pass. Until next time!
The past three days have been a blur of nurses, doctors, cardiologists and hospital technicians, all of whom have told me the same thing.
“You’re too young to be in here.”
I got dropped off at the Eisenhower Medical Centre ER in Rancho Mirage early on Tuesday morning, after experiencing an irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath at Tahquitz Peak, around mile 175 of my PCT thru-hike.
The ER nurse gave me an EKG, and I was diagnosed within the hour. I had atrial fibrillation, a condition that sends chaotic electrical signals to the upper chambers (atria) of the heart, causing them to beat out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles). The ER doctor who diagnosed me told me it was quite a common condition in seniors, but rare in young, otherwise healthy adults.
I was admitted, and given a drug to lower my blood pressure in the hopes that my heart would convert to its normal rhythm on its own. An X-ray of my chest indicated that I might have a blood clot in my lung, or pulmonary embolism. I was put on a drip of blood thinners, and an array of electrodes were attached to my chest to monitor my heart rate. That afternoon I was given a CT angiogram, which mercifully disagreed with the X-ray. I didn’t have a blood clot.
On Wednesday morning, I woke to the same erratic beating of my heart that had been bothering me since Saturday. It hadn’t converted. One of my doctors told me the only other way to fix my heart’s rhythm was a procedure known as a cardioversion, which involves using a defibrillator to shock it out of its arythmic pattern.
Late that afternoon, after a whole day of not eating, I was given the procedure. I was almost terrified going in, knowing a tube would be fed down my throat and a shock delivered straight to my most vital organ. Patrick, the cheery echocardiogram tech, did a great job of calming me down. I remember gagging on the tube going in, and the next thing I knew I was out of sedation and my heart was beating normally. I had a faint red mark on my chest where the paddle had been applied.
That’s the good news. The bad news is the doctors don’t know how long it will stay in rhythm. Atrial fibrillation can be a one-off event, or it can be a recurring condition. It can also become permanent.
Later that evening, a couple of section hikers I met on day one, Andrew and Jamie (trail name “The Homeboys”) drove all the way from LA to visit me in the hospital. We walked down to the cafeteria, which had closed for the night, and raided the vending machines. It was a relief to see people I recognised in this strange hospital, thousands of miles from home.
This morning, my primary care doctor gave me the bad news: he “highly recommended” against me continuing on the PCT. Even if I decided to continue anyway, my travel insurance wouldn’t cover it. They may not even let me stay in the US, or return to Chicago to say goodbye to my cousins and collect everything I left behind there.
I was sad, and angry. The PCT has been my life’s major goal for the past four years. I shared my misery with my hospital roommate, Bob, and his wife Karen, a couple from Wisconsin who live part of the year near Palm Springs. They kindly offered me somewhere to stay until it was all sorted out.
I was angry that I did everything I could possibly do to prepare for this hike, and it wasn’t enough. Over the past three years I’ve lost 20 kilograms, got fit, conditioned my legs, and got physiotherapy for my misaligned kneecap. I’ve gone from a couch potato to running 5-10 kilometres consistently. My legs, my knees, my feet and all the muscles supporting them were all going strong at mile 175, when my heart fell out of rhythm. And there’s nothing I could have done about it.
When a hospital attendant wheeled me downstairs to get a follow-up echocardiogram, I was despondent. Patrick lifted my spirits a little, but the thought of going home so soon was too overwhelming.
I was halfway through writing a mopey blog post (working title: “That’s All Folks”) from my hospital bed when one of the doctors came to see me.
“Your ventricle output has return to normal function,” he said. I was floored. I asked what that meant for my hike. “I’m going to write in my report that you’re ok to continue your travels,” he said. I could hardly believe it.
So the upshot is: I’m getting back on the trail. I’ll spend a couple of days in Indio with Bob and Karen, recovering and testing my fitness. Then I’m going to take it slow and steady back up the Devil’s Slide, where I left off. I’ll need to do things a little differently, but for now, I can still hike. Wish me luck.